After the tunnel bust-up with Manchester City on Sunday came this muted Manchester United display. They claimed victory but José Mourinho’s side are misfiring as their cross-town rivals continue to coast, winning a record 15th consecutive match at Swansea City.
The anomaly about this performance and the virtual no-show on Sunday is how Arsenal were taken apart at their own ground by United in the preceding match. But the requisite quality is lacking for them to consistently dominate.
United are 11 points behind City. Of the title race, Mourinho said: “If it is over now I go on holiday to Brazil or Los Angeles.”
Mourinho also has concerns over Eric Bailly. The centre-back has not played since 5 November, having injured an ankle on duty with Ivory Coast. The manager is hopeful he will not be ruled out for the rest of the season. “I don’t want to be pessimistic, I want to leave it with the doctor,” the Portuguese said.
“I think it’s serious. We are trying a conservative treatment but if the conservative treatment does not work he might have a surgical procedure. Probably the doctor can inform, it is not a problem for me [for the doctor to clarify] – I don’t want to speak about it. But today we played with [Chris] Smalling and [Phil] Jones, [Victor] Lindelof on the bench, Marcos Rojo is injured but nothing really big. During the season we have problems with central defenders, but Chris Smalling is playing amazingly well, so we are fine.”
Mourinho also faced questions over the continued absence of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who was a left out of the squad for a seventh time in the past eight matches. Asked to explain the forward’s omission, the manager said: “I can only have six players on the bench and I try to have some balance. I have Ashley Young to cover the wing and full-back position, [Ander] Herrera is a midfield player, Zlatan [Ibrahimovic] is a striker, [Marcus] Rashford is a second striker and a winger. To have Mkhi means I don’t have one of them and I believe the others deserve to be there.”
Both Mourinho and Eddie Howe made four changes. For United out went Rojo, Young, Herrera and Rashford and in came Luke Shaw, Phil Jones, Scott McTominay and Juan Mata. For Bournemouth, Dan Gosling, Harry Arter, Adam Smith and Callum Wilson replaced Steve Cook, Lewis Cook, Andrew Surman and Jermain Defoe.
The visitors were bright in a high-tempo start. United had a fluid look, with Lingard once more the No10 and with Mata flitting around from his right-hand berth.
Wilson’s pace appeared Bournemouth’s best hope of turning United and he forced a first corner by leaving Jones on his backside. The ensuing play led to another Bournemouth corner, then a prolonged passage of pressure from the visitors. This climaxed in Gosling selling Shaw a dummy and firing at David de Gea, who beat the ball away.
On 25 minutes United struck via Romelu Lukaku. Anthony Martial moved along the left and fed Mata. The Spaniard lifted the ball into the area and United’s No9 rose to head past a leaden-footed Asmir Begovic. Puzzlingly, there was next to nothing of a celebration from Lukaku for what was only his third goal in 15 games, and his first in five in the Premier League.
Later, Lukaku went on a run that was halted, and United were twice caught offside when in threatening positions, as the half fizzled out. As against City, however, Mourinho’s men had failed to spark.
The question of the second half, then, was whether they would be able to up the entertainment. They began by being boxed in just outside their area, which did not augur well. Still, a sprightly run and cross down the right from Lukaku was encouraging, and Martial made a similar move along the left flank. The Frenchman next pinged a ball in to Lukaku whose touch teed up Mata for a first-time effort which was blocked.
United’s problem was a lack of conviction where it matters: in front of goal. One illustration came when Lukaku teed up Martial but the No11 skied horribly from close range.
The Belgian had been booked for a challenge on Harry Arter late in the first half, but Howe believed this should have been a red card, claiming an 18th-minute challenge on Nathan Ake also deserved a booking. “He should have been off the pitch,” Bournemouth’s manager said.
United managed to cling on until the final whistle – De Gea’s knees repelling a Defoe effort – but all is not well with Mourinho’s team.